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04 January 2006


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Chazzanut Online - Nusach

Dutch Notated Nusach,
An Introduction


Before the Second World War, a number of Dutch chazzanim/composers endeavoured to transcribe a collection of typically Dutch synagogue tunes. These melodies belong to the now disappearing tradition of Western European Jewish music. Neil Levin aptly characterized this special heritage:

"Outside the synagogue, German Jewry developed a broad tapestry of regional melodies. Some families handed down tunes through the generations, especially in Frankfurt where they were considered communal treasures. German kohanim had melodies that no one else sang. Distinct tunes existed for Shabbat zemirot, for portions of the seder and even for secular Zionist songs. Most of these, some known only in a single community, are now virtually extinct."

The collections discussed on this page form an important source for studying this repertoire.


Among these collections, the most important one is a manuscript by Abraham Katz (1881-1930). Katz added detailed annotations in Hebrew and German concerning the proper usage of the transcribed melodies. This manuscript is considered to be one of the "treasures" of the Amsterdam University Library, which owns the work. The current cantor-in-chief of Amsterdam, Prof. Dr. Hans Bloemendal made a clarifying review of the work.


Two other collections are notable, since they are among the few works on Dutch chazzanut that were actually printed. The first one of these two works (1861) is by the Dutch composer Aron Wolff Berlijn (1817-1870). It contains the traditional melodies for the Priestly Blessings. In Holland, on each festival a specific melody is used to sing the Priestly Blessings. Berlijn arranged all these tunes for 2-part choir. I provided midi files for all these tunes.


The second collection (1924) was transcribed by J.A. Lissauer and published in the prewar weekly "The Friday Evening." Especially important are the three kaddish tunes in this collection: they give evidence of the Dutch tradition of using specific kaddish tunes for each festival.


Furthermore, Chazzan Maroko wrote an exposition on Dutch Nusach for the prewar "New Israelite Weekly" (1935). He provided quite a number of notated examples. Among many other things, he noted that the priestly tune for shacharit shel Matnat Yad is largely based on the daily recitative used in the German city of Frankfurt for "Divrei 'Elokim Chayim" and "Habocheir Be'amo Yisra'eil Be'ahavah." See Ugutsch, "Der Frankfurter Kantor", No. 13.


I received the following reaction from Charles Vitez:

"Thank you very much for such an interesting website. It would be great if you could get someone to translate the newspaper articles into English.

I was particularly interested in Chazan Berlijn's book on nigunei kohanim. Unfortunately I cannot really read music, but your midi files were a great help.

The only tune that I actually recognised was the one called "shacharit shel yomin noraim" (page 7) apart from the first few bars (which in any case do not seem to blend well and are probably just a fancy bit of chazanus added possibly because he realised that this chant was too short as it stood) it is much like the tune that my late father taught me and which he learned in the synagogues of Budapest almost 90 years ago.

The difference is that the way I know it the first set of ascending bars are repeated and the final bar holds on some more and finally ascends before repeating "ve-yishmerecho", "vichunecho" and "sholaym".

The timing here is essential because the congregation has to have sufficient time to recite the prayer "ribaynay shel aylom", complete it before the words themselves are uttered by the kohen and then be ready with the response."

Cantor Sam Weiss commented:

"Related evidence of the blurring of the distinctions between free-flowing hazzanut and metrical melody is found in Berlijn's The Dutch Priestly Melodies. Here the interesting evidence is in written form as well. His "Birkat Nesi'at Kapayim" gives the instruction "Andante, quasi recitativo," yet it is composed for two voices.

That the written transcription is an attempt to fit a non-metrical work into a metrical strait-jacket is indicated by all the fermatas that it contains. Yet the scoring for two voices indicates that the composer heard this music with more "Western" ears than his East-European counterpart would have."

More reactions are welcome.

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